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Conmebol World Cup Qualifying: The Stretch Run

Monday 4th September 2017
Russia 2018 is just months off. Before the New Year, all 32 participants will be known. Here's how Conmebol World Cup qualifying is set for the stretch run.

In terms of member nations, Conmebol is FIFA's smallest confederation. UEFA has 55 members, Africa 53, Asia 45, and Concacaf 41. Even Oceania outnumbers Conmebol 11 to 10. The South American region's membership is such an exclusive club, three countries--to use the term loosely--on its mainland must play their football in Concacaf.

On the other hand, Conmebol has long rivaled UEFA in power, both on the pitch and in the boardroom. Europe's run of three consecutive World Cup triumphs, Italy (2006), Spain (2010), and Germany (2014), give the Old World an 11-9 edge in tournaments won. Recent FIFA reforms suggest its political influence is also in ascendance. It shouldn't be forgotten, however, that the organisation's rise can largely be attributed to Joao Havelange, the Brazilian cartola of cartolas who taught Sepp Blatter every corrupt trick he knows.

With only ten nations, Conmebol keeps its qualification process simple, if lengthy. All nations engage in a two-year round robin competition. The four best go to Russia. The fifth will face, almost certainly, New Zealand for their chance.

Here is how matters have unfolded to this point.

Top Hats

Brazil



Samba Nation's qualifying did not begin well. Its opening match was a 2-0 defeat to Copa America champion Chile in Santiago. Questions were immediately asked. Were the Selecao still in a funk over their World Cup comeuppance at Germany's hands boots? Was Tite the coach to right the ship? Had it been wrong to strip Neymar of the captaincy?

Answering in order, if they were, they responded to this wake-up call; a subsequent fourteen-match unbeaten run suggests Tite is indeed the right man; it also suggests there are no leadership issues within the squad.
The rest of the world may be falling apart. Even Brazil's own government is in turmoil. Yet, all is right again in football terms. Brazil has qualified for the World Cup well in advance. The Selecao have scored 11 more goals than the next South American squad, conceded four fewer. Under Tite, they are no longer trying to field ten Ronaldinhos and a goalkeeper. They aren't playing the flashy football the world imagines won them five World Cups. Instead, they are playing the strong physical style that did.

All that remains is to see whether their dominance can once again translate onto the global stage.

Colombia



The Coffee Growers have never won the World Cup. Tragically, their most memorable moment may have been Andres Escobar's assassination in Medellin after returning from a disappointing 1994 tournament that included an own goal in an embarrassing defeat to the host Americans. The killing was attributed to a drug cartel.

Colombia is moving away from the violent era ruled by the drug trade. FARC rebels have traded in their guns for representation in parliament. The nation's football is again on the rise. As is the case with virtually any ambitious South American side not named Brazil or Uruguay, its talent is mentored by an Argentinian coach.

Jose Pekerman's tactical nous saw him become Argentina's coach in 2004. His side was a favourite in Germany 2006. After dominating its group, then knocking Mexico out in the round of 16, the Albiceleste fell to Germany on penalties after conceding a late equaliser to Miroslav Klose. The Polish-born German national tended to do that frequently, 16 times in World Cups alone. Nevertheless, Pekerman resigned and took a one-year hiatus. Ironically, he made his return with Toluca in Mexico. He accepted the Colombia job in 2012.
Pekerman's situation differs from Tite. His is a veteran squad rather than one being rebuilt. An even dozen in his current squad are 28 or older. Radamel Falcao and Teofilo Gutierrez are 30-somethings in attack. Juan Cuadrado is 29. Even baby-face James Rodriguez is now 26.

Los Cafeteros are Conmebol World Cup qualifying's third-best defence. Insufficient pace has hampered their attack, however. Pekerman has his troops in second despite that. Their three remaining matches are at home to Brazil tomorrow, 5 September, then Paraguay and Peru in October. They can't take any lightly. The gap between second and eighth is just five points.

Uruguay



La Celeste's badge confuses some people. As well as two laurels, it has four stars, which officially indicate World Cups won. Uruguay has only done so twice. The catch is they had already won two Olympics when that competition was recognised as FIFA's championship. In the end, Uruguay's crest will only be truly representative of the nation when a lunch bucket is placed on it.

Oscar Tabarez's side is football's ultimate blue-collar team. Fiercely competitive, the small nation comprising less than 3.5 million people has consistently punched above its weight in world football. Those two Olympics and World Cup triumphs are supplemented by 15 Copa America crowns, more than any other South American country.

Tabarez, 70, has managed the side since 2006. He's always fielded a balanced squad. Galatasaray's Fernando Muslera minds the sticks. Atletico Madrid's Diego Godin captains and marshals the defence. Inter's Matias Vecino and Racing Club's Egidio Arevalo are rugged playmakers with dangerous targets in Paris Saint-Germain's Edinson Cavani and Barcelona's Luis Suarez. Excepting the Brazilians, La Celeste possesses the confederation's most potent attack.
With Paraguay, Venezuela, and Bolivia its remaining opponents, qualification should be straightforward. Expect to see Uruguay in Russia. Just hope they aren't in your country's group.

Chile



The Copa America and Centenario champions are unsettled. Their Argentine guru/coach left (initially) for La Liga. Their talismanic striker is likely distracted by an unhappy club situation. Goalkeeper Claudio "Don't call me Butterfingers" Bravo is their captain. Perhaps that last is why La Roja has conceded by far the most goals among nations in qualifying positions.

New boss Juan Antonio Pizzi isn't being confused with predecessor Jorge Sampaoli. Yet, he can't be accused of starting from scratch. Chile may be the oldest side in Conmebol. Thirteen squad members are in their 30s. Three more are 29.

Twenty-eight-year-old Alexis Sanchez sees his World Cup window rapidly closing. Jorge Valdivia (33) and Arturo Vidal (30) are slowing. At the back, Gary Medel (30) and thrilling fullback Jean Beausejour (33) are tiring, as well. That doesn't help Bravo's cause.
Bolivia at altitude is their next match. La Paz sitting at nearly 12,000' above sea level is a great equaliser against dangerous visiting teams. In October, Ecuador and Brazil await. If any side is set for a stunning fall from contention, it's Chile.

Argentina



Sitting level on points with Chile, Argentina would love nothing better than to see La Roja slip. Nor is that due to Jorge Sampaoli's presence as manager. La Albiceleste are an uncomfortable fifth. If they don't move up, the inconvenience and slight risk of a playoff with the Oceania champion will be in their future.

The Argentines are in peril mostly through poor executive management. Corruption within the AFA affected the squad. Tata Martinez resigned as manager. His successor, Edgardo Bauza, received little support. He spent much of his time convincing Lionel Messi to reconsider his sudden international retirement.
They have a glaring problem on the pitch, as well.

Goalkeeping is solid. Sergio Romero backstopped Manchester United to a Europa League crown. The defence is reliable. Javier Mascherano is in charge, with Gabriel Mercado, Federico Fazio, the Nicolases Otamendi and Parejo in his posse. Argentina's attack is obscenely wealthy. We're talking Illuminati type riches: Lionel Messi, Paulo Dybala, Sergio Kun Aguero, Mauro Icardi. Sampaoli didn't even call up Gonzalo Higuain or Ezequiel Lavezzi for this international break.

What's missing is a bonafide playmaker to connect the front and back. Javier Pastore is the most fluid midfielder in the lineup, but is a wide player. So is Angel di Maria. West Ham's Manuel Lanzini is promising but yet to come into his own. The temptation is to transform Messi into a Spanish-speaking Wayne Rooney.
The switch could work if the Barcelona man is willing. It's not like he's resistant to change. He was just married. Neymar left him high and dry at the Nou Camp. He's grown a hipster beard and occasionally dyes his hair. Most importantly, Leo is the one finisher Sampaoli has with the chops to distribute the ball. He isn't the world's best player por nada.

With Venezuela, Peru, and Ecuador on their fixture list, Sampaoli can probably muddle through with the status quo. He also has some room to experiment. This isn't the time for the unconventional coach to discover conservatism.

The Outsiders

Peru



Of the three nations in the bottom half with a chance to force their way into the World Cup picture, Peru seem the most likely. Los Incas have been to three World Cups, albeit none since 1982.

Ricardo Gareca's side have given literally as good as they've gotten, scoring and conceding 24 goals to date. Jefferson Farfan, playing his club football in Russia with Lokomotiv Moscow, remains the side's best player. He is among a handful of 30-somethings mentoring a young squad.
The side will have to redouble its focus on defending in the final three matches. Ecuador, Argentina, and Colombia are in their queue. If Gareca's crew can run that gauntlet, Farfan will be able to take them on a tour of Moscow's best pubs.

Paraguay



Los Guaranies have been more frequent World Cup participants than Peru, with eight trips in total. Failure to qualify in 2014 ended a four-tournament run stretching from Jose Luis Chilavert to Roque Santa Cruz. Francisco Arce's current team doesn't feature a world-class player, which truly hurts their chances in a talent-laden confederation. Lucas Barrios is the closest the side comes.
With its inability to score or defend effectively, progressing to the final appears beyond this squad. Coming matches against Uruguay and Colombia may kill the value in facing bottom-feeders Venezuela to close out their campaign.

Ecuador



Los Amarillos are a point behind Peru and Paraguay, a perplexing situation considering they post a positive goal difference. Matches against Peru, Chile, and Argentina are difficult. On the other hand, those are nations they must overtake to book a flight to Russia.
Gustavo Quinteros has a capable leader on the pitch in Manchester United right back Antonio Valencia. He plays in a more advanced position in the national set-up. Better to connect with Enner Valencia (UANL Tigres) and Felipe Caicedo (Lazio). If Jefferson Montero, on loan from Swansea to Getafe, can quickly rediscover his form, Quinteros will have another tool in his bag. Ecuador is not in the best position. Still, difficult challenges can be the most rewarding.

El Barrio

Bolivia



The days of Marco Etchevarry are long gone. El Diablo carried La Verde into the 1994 World Cup in the United States. His play led to a legendary spell with DC United, fledgling competition Major League Soccer's inaugural champion. Bolivia hasn't found another player of Etchevarry's calibre. That and a downtrodden economy have prevented the landlocked South American nation from returning to the grand stage. All ten of its points have been claimed in La Paz's extreme altitude, none at sea level. Ironic to be so high and low simultaneously.

Venezuela



La Vinotinto have never been to the World Cup. They will not be going in 2018. Blame it on an unhealthy obsession with baseball or left-wing dictators. Just remember the side came closest under recently deceased Fidel Castro BFF Hugo Chavez. No offense to homegrown boss Rafael Dudamel but perhaps the FVF should hire an Argentinian manager. It's worked wonders for everyone else.
Martin Palazzotto

The former editor of World Football Columns, Martin contributes frequently to Stretty News and is the author of the short story collection strange bOUnce. He has appeared in several other blogs which, sadly, have ceased to exist. He is old and likes to bring out defunct. Although football is his primary passion, the geezer enjoys many sports and pop culture forms. Expect them to intrude upon his meanderings for It's Round and It's White.


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